Bob Dylan was used to recording at Columbia Records’ Studio A in New York, so it was natural that when he began recording the album that would become Blonde On Blonde, he would return to the studio where he’d worked previously.
This time he went in with his touring band, The Hawks. But the onstage fireworks mostly didn’t translate into studio recordings that satisfied Dylan.
Six sessions were held in New York, but they were frustrating for Dylan. He wasn’t getting the sound he wanted, and only one song from all those sessions, “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later),” would end up on the album.
Dylan’s producer, Bob Johnston, had suggested a change of scene during the Highway 61 Revisited sessions: Columbia Music Row Studios in Nashville. Now Dylan decided to take Johnston’s advice.
On February 14, 1966, Dylan showed up in Nashville for sessions that would produce the bulk of the recordings that would be used on Blonde On Blonde, which I think is Dylan’s true masterpiece.
Sean Wilentz wrote in a 2007 issue of the Oxford American about the making of Blonde On Blonde:
Nashville had been ascending as a major recording center since the 1940s. By 1963, it boasted 1,100 musicians and fifteen recording studios. After Steve Sholes’s and Chet Atkins’s pioneering work in the 1950s with Elvis Presley, Nashville also proved it could produce superb rock & roll as well as country & western, r&b, and Brenda Lee pop. That held especially true for the session crew Johnston assembled for Dylan’s Nashville dates. Trying to plug songs for Presley’s movies, Johnston had hooked up for demo recordings with younger players, many of whom, like McCoy, had moved to Nashville from other parts of the South. Charlie McCoy and the Escorts, in fact, were reputed to be Nashville’s tightest and busiest weekend rock band in the mid-1960s; the members included the guitarist Wayne Moss and the drummer Kenneth Buttrey who, along with McCoy, would be vital to Blonde on Blonde.
Johnston’s choices (also including Jerry Kennedy, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Henry Strzelecki, and the great Joseph Souter, Jr.—aka Joe South, who would hit it big nationally in three years with “Games People Play”) were certainly among Nashville’s top session men. Some of them had worked with stars ranging from Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbison to Ann-Margret. But apart from the A-list regular McCoy (whose harmonica skills were in special demand), they were still up-and-coming members of the Nashville elite, roughly Dylan’s age. (Robbins, at twenty-eight, was a relative old-timer; McCoy, at twenty-four, was only two months older than Dylan; Buttrey was just turning twenty-one.) Although too professional to be starstruck, McCoy says, they knew Dylan, if at all, as the songwriter from “Blowin’ in the Wind” or simply as a guy from New York, an interloper. But they were much more in touch with what Dylan was up to on Blonde on Blonde than is allowed by the stereotype of long-haired New York hipsters colliding with well-scrubbed Nashville good ol’ boys. One of Dylan’s biographers reports that Robbie Robertson found the Nashville musicians “standoffish.” But the outgoing Al Kooper, who had more recording experience, recalls the scene differently: “Those guys welcomed us in, respected us, and played better than any other studio guys I had ever played with previously.”
Forty-eight years ago, on February 4, 1966, Bob Dylan and the Hawks kicked off their unprecedented 1966 world tour.
Unprecedented because never before had a popular artist so radically altered their art.
Less than a year earlier, in May of 1965, Dylan had completed a tour of England at the Royal Albert Hall. That tour was documented in “Don’t Look Back,” and during it Dylan remained the folk singer — playing harp and an acoustic guitar.
Dylan was known throughout the world in early 1965 as a folksinger. His first four albums found him playing guitar, harp and piano.
But 17 days after 1965 English tour tour ended, on May 27, 1965, Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home, an album whose first half was a new kind of rock ‘n’ roll, one that mixed caustic poetry with bluesy rock and Dylan’s unique vocals.
Two months later the single “Like a Rolling Stone” was released, and Dylan was a full-fledged rock star.
“Like A Rolling Stone” was a hit, reaching #2 in the U.S. and charting in the Top 10 in a number of other countries including England.
Dylan blew minds when he performed electric rock ‘n’ roll at Newport on July 24, 1965. Dylan and the Hawks played Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in New York on August 28, and then Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan’s first total rock ‘n’ roll album, was released on August 30.
October, November and December found Dylan and the Hawks barnstorming through America.
The 1966 World Tour began in the U.S., but eventually hit Australia and then England, and it was in England, where fans had last seen Dylan with an acoustic guitar, that fans reacted with fury to Dylan going electric.
“They absolutely hated us,” Robbie Robertson said of a tour in which audiences didn’t comprehend some of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll every played.
As Greil Marcus wrote in his book “Invisible Republic – Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes”: “In America, this music was, in a way, prophetic. At the very least the sound and its reception prefigured an America that, soon enough, for everyone, would be all too familiar: a country split in half over race and war, with battles in the streets, guns fired on college campuses, ghastly riots in cities across the nation, leaders falling to assassins as if on a schedule set by public fantasy, screamers driven from meeting halls with clubs, common citizens driven from their streets with gas and bullets.
“But in the United Kingdom, where after eight months on the road the ensemble had likely reached the limits of their capacities, and reveled at the fact, the hatred for Dylan’s new music and for what he had become was somehow more abstract than in the United States, and more impersonal — uglier.
“It was as if he had betrayed not simply the Freedom Sinfgers, or Woody Guthrie, or the fan who was now shouting, but the Folk immemorial, the mystic chords of memory. The very instinct that history contained identity and one could claim it. In any case the response now made the controversies of the past seasons fade into their own abstraction. In the music Dylan and the Hawks sent off stages in May of 1966, absurdity wars with terror, terror with exultation, exultation with loathing. It was all too much, it couldn’t last and it didn’t.”
Below are live performances from the 1966 World Tour.
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” April 13 1966, Sydney:
“I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Have Never Met),” APril 13, 1966:
“Positively 4th Street,” April 13 1966, Sydney:
“Tell Me, Momma,” May 14, 1966, Liverpool:
“Like A Rolling Stone,” May 14, 1966, Liverpool:
“One Too Many Mornings,” May 16, 1966, Sheffield:
“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” May 26, 1966, Royal Albert Hall, London:
“Ballad Of A Thin Man,” May 26, 1966, Royal Albert Hall, London:
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